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Bill Cosby

On trial

For Bill Cosby’s alleged crimes he had alleged help

Last Tuesday, a Pennsylvania judge ruled there was enough evidence from the 2004 case of Andrea Constand to proceed with a criminal trial against Bill Cosby for sexual misconduct. If convicted, this may be the only legal consequence Cosby ever faces for decades of allegedly drugging, incapacitating, and sexually assaulting women.

This week, the Associated Press published more details from Cosby’s 2005 deposition in the Constand case. In it, he admits to giving her Benadryl and describes the interaction that prompted Constand to accuse Cosby of sexual misconduct. “I don’t hear her say anything,” Cosby said. “And I don’t feel her say anything. And so I continue and I go into the area that is somewhere between permission and rejection. I am not stopped.” Cosby’s formal arraignment, to which he waived his right, had been scheduled for July 20.

On paper, this is a trial is about Cosby’s 2004 actions toward Constand. Of course, its significance has the potential to be much, much larger. His accusers now number more than 50. This may be their only hope for witnessing something resembling retribution.

But for Bill Cosby’s alleged crimes, he had alleged help. While he is ultimately responsible for his actions, Cosby had a number of possible abettors: friends, his agent at William Morris, a facilities manager at NBC, his publicist, even the doctor who wrote him prescriptions for Quaaludes. He died in 2001. According to the latest revelations from his 2005 deposition, a modeling agency, run by the now-deceased Sue Charney, would send “five or six” women, as young as 17, to his studio each week when he was taping one of his sitcoms.

“I don’t think she knew what was going on,” Charney’s sister, Alice Opell, told The Washington Post last year. “She did it as a courtesy he requested, that the models attend the taping.”

Is this trial, in which Cosby stands accused of three counts of felony aggravated indecent assault, enough to mitigate the sins of all who assisted him as well? And how much responsibility do those individuals bear?

Let’s step away from Cosby for a moment.

Consider Jackie Fuchs, the lead guitarist for The Runaways who came forward last year in a piece written by Jason Cherkis of the Huffington Post to say that not only did Runaways manager Kim Fowley rape her, he did it at a party in front of a crowd of people. It was 1975, and Fuchs was 16. She’d taken Quaaludes from a roadie.

Fuchs said her own bandmates, Cherie Currie and Joan Jett, who were 16 and 17 years old at the time, not only watched but even teased her mercilessly about it afterward. Currie and Jett responded after the initial article to deny culpability, but what about the adults who were present at the party and neither said nor did anything to stop Fowley? By not helping Fuchs, were they aiding Fowley? Legally, it’s difficult to say. We don’t even have a national legal consensus over what constitutes rape.

Evidence is wheeled in on a cart before actor and comedian Bill Cosby arrives for a pre-trial hearing on sexual assault charges in Norristown, Pennsylvania May 24, 2016.

Evidence is wheeled in on a cart before actor and comedian Bill Cosby arrives for a pre-trial hearing on sexual assault charges in Norristown, Pennsylvania May 24, 2016.

REUTERS/Mark Makela

And yet Cosby clearly had a web of people who protected him, aided him, or simply looked the other way in the face of wrongdoing. There was Frank Scotti, the former NBC facilities manager whom Cosby would dispatch to pay off women with money orders in Scotti’s name. “It was a cover-up. I realized it later,” Scotti told the New York Daily News in 2014.

“I used to like him, but that’s the reason I quit him after so many years — because of the girls,” Scotti said.

There was Cosby’s agent at William Morris, Tom Illius, who died in 2011. Illius was responsible for sending payments to one of Cosby’s accusers, Therese Serignese. Cosby said this was to prevent his wife Camille from finding out about her. Cosby’s sworn deposition leaves a trail of disturbing questions in its wake: Who besides Illius at William Morris — where Cosby was a client for 48 years — knew what Cosby was doing? Did they turn a blind eye in order to retain a famous and valuable client? According to The Hollywood Reporter, no. Wrote Kim Masters: “Former WMA agents — including some who were on the board of directors and some who didn’t necessarily leave with fond memories — insist, even with a promise of anonymity, that they never heard a murmur about Cosby, drugs or sexual assault.”

In a news conference last year, attorney Gloria Allred, who represents a number of Cosby accusers, was at the side of a client using the pseudonym “Kacey.” Kacey alleged that in 1996 Cosby drugged and assaulted her at the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles. Kacey was Illius’ assistant. She said the assault prompted her to quit her job.

Were the services that Illius, and by extension, William Morris, provided to Cosby a normal part of doing business? If so, for whom else has William Morris provided such services? Would there have been any difference in how this was handled if there had been gender parity in the company, particularly among its executive ranks? What are the ethical obligations of Cosby’s publicist of 40-plus years, David Brokaw, or Brokaw’s elderly father Norman, the onetime William Morris chairman who also represented Cosby? “Any action my father, Norman Brokaw, has ever taken that I knew about was predicated on honesty, ethics and integrity for any client,” David Brokaw told The Hollywood Reporter about his father last year.

William Morris reportedly tried to fire Illius in the 1990s. We don’t know why. Cosby intervened and saved his job.

Is this trial, in which Cosby stands accused of three counts of felony aggravated indecent assault, enough to mitigate the sins of all who assisted him as well? And how much responsibility do those individuals bear?

Cosby’s support network extended to his closest friends as well. On May 16, Cosby accuser Chloe Goins filed suit against Cosby and his longtime buddy, Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner for sexual battery, gender violence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and perhaps most relevant here, conspiracy to commit sexual battery.

Goins alleges that Cosby gave her a spiked drink at the Playboy Mansion in 2008. When she said she felt sick, Hefner offered to let her retire to a room. She alleges that she awoke to find Cosby molesting her. She’s also claimed that he gave her the drink in Hefner’s presence.

Hefner has denied any wrongdoing. “Bill Cosby has been a good friend for many years and the mere thought of these allegations is truly saddening,” he said in a 2014 statement. “I would never tolerate this kind of behavior, regardless of who was involved.”

Multiple women have come forward to say they were assaulted by Cosby at Hefner’s Playboy Club. And last summer, New York Magazine, in a cover story, published accounts from 35 women who came forward to accuse Cosby of some form of impropriety or molestation. One of them, a former Playboy bunny named P.J. Masten, revealed this chilling bit of information: “I told my supervisor at the Playboy Club what he did to me, and you know what she said to me? She said: ‘You do know that’s Hefner’s best friend, right?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ She says to me, ‘Nobody’s going to believe you. I suggest you shut your mouth.’ ”

Finally, the scaffolding of silence and deceit that was protecting Cosby for so many years has crumbled, but why did it take so long? In a recent op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter, Ronan Farrow acknowledged similarities between his father, director Woody Allen, and Cosby. He also presented an explanation for why the media treats Allen so gently, and why Allen has faced few professional repercussions for allegedly sexually assaulting his daughter Dylan Farrow when she was 7 years old. Farrow implicated Allen’s longtime publicist Leslee Dart, though he didn’t mention her by name. Essentially, media organizations were cowed into glossing over the less palatable aspects — such as Dylan Farrow’s molestation accusations, or the apparent oddness of Allen’s marriage to MIa Farrow’s daughter, Soon-Yi Previn — of Allen’s life thanks to fear of retribution and Dart’s willingness to use the threat of withholding access to her other high-profile clients.

With an action that prompted Slate to proclaim “Woody Allen’s Publicist Proves Ronan Farrow 100 Percent Right About Access Journalism,” Dart banned the The Hollywood Reporter from an event for Allen’s latest film, Cafe Society, at the Cannes Film Festival. The benefits of doing so clearly outweighed the costs thanks to Dart’s client list, which has included Meryl Streep, Will Smith, and Scott Rudin.

Actor and comedian Bill Cosby (C) reacts while departing a hearing on sexual assault charges at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania February 3, 2016.

Bill Cosby reacts while departing a hearing on sexual assault charges at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania. February 3, 2016.

REUTERS/Mark Makela

Cosby doesn’t enjoy that level of protection anymore, but he did for decades, until he became so radioactive he was dropped by the Creative Artists Agency, which had been his agency since 2012. Cosby’s shows on his Far From Finished tour were so beset with controversy that he had to offer refunds on tickets, and other venues simply canceled his dates. Cosby’s agency fired him. So here we are, staring at a case against a 78-year-old man about to stand trial for three felony counts. Constand’s case, and a subsequent conviction, may just have to stand as justice for all, whether it’s enough or not.

The thing that’s protected Cosby for so long is an agreement, an entire network of them, that allows for improprieties great and small to be swept away with an education trust here or regularly dispatched money orders there. Ever since these accusations surfaced, Cosby has leaned on propriety. “No, no. We don’t talk about that,” he told an Associated Press reporter who asked Cosby if he was a rapist during a sit-down interview. Cosby was accompanied by his wife, Camille, a powerful symbol of propriety in her own right. It’s what they’re both clinging to, what she’s clinging to when she refuses to answer questions when deposed. The last remaining trace of that propriety may be the word “alleged.”

If convicted, Cosby would be recognized as a sex offender, with no more doubt, no more gentleman’s agreements, and certainly no more Hollywood helpmeets to make things go away. What was once just a shadow will be a permanent stain.

But Cosby had help. Sorry. Alleged help.

Does that permanent stain transfer to them too? If similar circumstances are any indication, then no. It’s not likely.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.